Christianity and Noahide Law
Within Judaism it is a matter of debate whether all Christians should be considered Noahides mainly due to the excessive levels of persecution against Jews perpetrated in the name of Christianity over the centuries culminating of course in the "Positive Christianity" of the Nazis during the holocaust.
While Christianity appears to conform to six of the seven Noahide laws, an informal comparison of the Athanasian Creed and Noahide Law reveals that three major theological teachings may involve a violation of the Noahide prohibition against idolatry.
- Equating Yeshu Notzri or Yeshua Sar HaPanim with G-d the Father.
- Equating the Holy Spirit with G-d the Father.
- Yeshu Notzri as Savior
However, these theological issues do not fit the classical Jewish definition of idolatry. This has caused disagreement among rabbinic authorities on the question of the permissibility of Christianity for non-Jews. (All authorities forbid Christianity for Jews).
Another consideration would be that even if Christians are considered at least partially observant Noahides, are they Chasidei Umos HaOlam or Chochmei Umos HaOlam? The former are considered to have a share in the world to come because they recognize Noahide Law as being revealed through mosaic (rabbinic) tradition, the latter are not considered to have a share in the world to come because they follow Noahide Law based on intellectual expediency.
In summary, classical idolatry has been clearly defined by Jewish Law. Christianity, however, has been defined as something less. The problem is defining how much less, and for what purposes.
The Talmud makes no clear reference to Jesus or Christianity. Various attempts to equate minim with early Christians are tenuous at best because there seems to be no relationship between the teachings of the minim and Christian teachings. Christianity is first discussed in detail in terms of Jewish law by the rishonim (Rabbis of the early medieval period (1250–1550))
The strict view, typified by Maimonides, is that Christian theology is considered avodah zarah (loosely translated as "idolatry") for all people, both Jew and non-Jew, as it subscribes to the Trinity. Therefore most Christians could not be considered Noahides. However, Unitarian Christians and other followers of Jesus who do not believe that Jesus is a deity would still be considered Noahides.
Maimonides was clearly of the opinion that Christianity was idolatry. He is believed to have ruled in three places that Christianity is idolatry and forbidden to non-Jews:
- Ger Toshav, one who accepts upon himself the seven laws as we have explained -- his wine is forbidden to drink, but permitted to benefit from. He can be appointed over wine, but wine is not deposited by him. Such it is with all non-Jews that are not idolators, such as the Muslims -- their wine is forbidden to drink, but permitted to benefit from; This is also how we were instructed by the Gaonim. However the Christians -- since they are idolators, one is even prohibited from benefiting from their wine.
- Know that this Christian nation, who advocates the messianic claim in all their various sects, all of them are idolaters. On all their various festivals it is forbidden for us to deal with them. And all Torah restrictions pertaining to idolaters pertain to them... We deal with them as we would deal with any idolaters on their festival.
- Christians are idolaters and Sunday is their holy day. Accordingly it is forbidden to buy and sell with them on Thursday, Friday or every Saturday within the Land of Israel. Of course Sunday itself [is forbidden to buy and sell with them], which is forbidden in every location. This is also our custom for all their holidays.
However Jewish Law disagrees with this opinion, as seen by the fact that Jews are not required to avoid Christians the days before and after Sunday or other holidays, as would be required of full idolaters.
It is implied by Maimonides in his "Laws of Kings":
- Even Jesus the Christian, who imagined himself as messiah, and was executed by the court -- was already prophesied about by Daniel "Those who are violent among your own people will rise up in confirmation of the vision, but they will falter." (Daniel 11:14). There was a great stumbling in this. All the prophets spoke of messiah as redeemer and saviour of the Jewish people, who will gather the exiles, and strengthen their laws. But this one has caused the destruction of Israel by the sword, the dispersal of the remnant, the exchange of the Torah for another, the misleading of most of the world to worship a god other than the L-rd.
Most of these texts are missing from the the standard Vilna edition of these works, and are assumed to have been deleted by the censors. For whatever reason, the Code of Jewish Law has not made use of these supporting texts.
In Moreh Nevuchim, Maimonides writes that Christianity has a mistaken understanding of G-d, similar to those who assign attributes to Him. This might imply that Christianity is a min (deviant sect), which is perhaps a step up from idolatry.
In his Epistles to Yemen, Maimonides implied that Christianity was idolatry, but he also says Christianity has a role to play in G-d's plan by "preparing the way for the Messiah's coming and the improvement of the entire world..."
Rabbenu Tam and his fellow Tosafists did not condemn Christianity as idolatry. "The fact that most people do business with the non-Jews on their holy days is problematic... It would seem that the reason for this permissiveness is that the non-Jews among whom we live are not to be considered idolaters..". Rabbenu Tam was of the opinion that the prohibition of doing business with idolaters before and during their holy days was only meant to apply to items that they might use in their worship, and did not apply to buying from them.
When a certain rabbi in Europe prohibited all contact with Christians on their holy days (which was more often than not when the great fairs were held) Rabbenu Gershom objects, "But in [the Land of] Israel it is already customary to barter with non-Jews on their holy days, and we should not forbid this. It is better that [the Jews] contravene the law in ignorance than that they should do so knowingly, [which they will inevitably do] since their livelihood depends on their wares and most days of the year are [Christian] holy days."
The position of the Tosafists is complex. It is generally held that the Tosafists, particularly the Ri and possibly also Rabbeinu Tam, considered Christian belief to be "the partnering of the Name of Heaven with something else", and that as Noachides (i.e. non-Jews) are not forbidden to engage in such partnering; Christian belief and worship is permitted for non-Jews, and it is permitted for Jews to cause them to actively express that belief or engage in such worship. However, this judgement is not followed through in other areas. It seems from the words of Tosafot to Bechorot 2a and Sanhedrin 63b that their comments are limited to the case of oathtaking, i.e. partnering the Name of Heaven with something else while taking an oath. The halachic context would not be the prohibitions against idolatrous worship but rather the prohibition "Let them not be heard as a result of you", which would be understood as "let them not be heard as the exclusive guarantors of an oath as a result of you. Several great acharonim, including Shaar Efraim, Noda B'Yehudah, Meil Tzedakah, Olat Tamid, and Chazon Ish, understood Tosafot in this fashion. Some of them also interpreted Ramo, who cites Tosafot, the same way. But there are also those, including Shach and Seder Mishnah, who read Tosafot broadly, as referring to all prohibitions associated with Christian faith. But according to either reading of Tosafot, Jews holding Christian beliefs are violating avodah zarah prohibitions. Even Meiri, who assigns Noachides "bound by the ways of religion" (which presumptively includes Christians) a status equivalent to Jews for several legal purposes, probably believes that they are nonetheless worshipers of avodah zarah
In general Jewish law follows Tosafos and rules that Christian theology is only considered avodah zarah for Jews, but it is permissible for gentiles. The Tosafist Rabbi Jacob Tam (Rashi's grandson) ruled that trinitarianism could be permitted to gentiles as a form of shittuf ("association"). This view was echoed by Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet (Rivash, responsa 119) and accepted by Rabbi Moses Isserles (Rema). However, no Jewish source allows the worship through any form of shittuf; rather, all worship must be directed to the one and only Creator. In this view Christian theology is not forbidden to gentiles, and all Christians are Noahides.
Even if one concludes that Christianity is avodah zarah for non-Jews, it is not clear that most non-Jews are deeply attached to their avodah zarah beliefs, and further more there are Christian groups whose beliefs differ greatly in areas touching the halachic definition of avodah zarah. See the contemporary Rabbi Henkin's citation in Bnei Banim 35 of Rabbeinu Yerucham's (1290-1350) description of the non-Jews of his time as "not deeply attached to avodah zarah", and the Rabbi Eliezer ben Natan (Ra'avan of Mainz) (1090-1170) spoke about this as well, and Rabbi Henkin sees in him grounds for distinguishing among the various churches.
It has been noted that in the Maimonides' day and Islamic environment, it was just as dangerous to say that Christianity was not idolatry as it was for in Tosefos day to say that it was.
Attempts to reconstruct Rabbinic opinion of the early Christians based on New Testament, Josephus and other nearly contemporary writing is problematic, and has never been fully attempted, but may yet yield fruitful results. Josephus generally portrays the Sadducees as antagonistic to early Christianity, while the New Testament portrays Pharisees as being tolerant. Neither Jesus, nor the early Christians were accused of idolatry. Instead they were apparently executed on the basis of blasphemy, or given corporal punishment based on disobedience to the directives of a court
Other Rabbinic Views of Christianity
Rabbi Menahem Ha-Meiri (d. 1315)
Rabbi Menahem Ha-Meiri, the fourteenth century Provencal scholar, introduced a new perspective in framing relations between Jews and the wider Christian or Islamic societies in which they lived:
- It has already been stated that these things [laws relating to gentiles] were said concerning periods when there existed nations of idolaters, and they were contaminated in their deeds and tainted in their dispositions . . . but other nations, which are restrained by the ways of religion and which are free from such blemishes of character - on the contrary, they even punish such deeds - are, without doubt, exempt from this prohibition.
According to Meiri, all mishnaic rules circumscribing business and other transactions with non-Jews are to be understood as referring to pagan or polytheistic cultures, no longer extant, which in addition to being idolatrous were also unprincipled in their dealings with people. That has now changed. The nations amongst whom Jews lived were now "restrained by the ways of religion" and were therefore to be regarded as on a par with the Ger Toshav of biblical times, namely as Chasidei Umos HaOlam.
Rabbi Moses Rivkes (Lithuania, 17th century)
Rabbi Moses Rivkes gives halakhic expression to the difference between pagan and monotheistic gentile cultures:
- The rabbis of the Talmud meant by the term 'idolators' the pagans who lived in their time, who worshipped the stars and the constellations and did not believe in the Exodus from Egypt and in the creation of the world out of nothing. But the nations under whose benevolent shadow we, the Jewish nation, are exiled and are dispersed among them, they do believe in the creation of the world out of nothing and the Exodus from Egypt and in the essentials of faith, and their whole intention is toward the Maker of heaven and earth, as other authorities have said . . . these nations do believe in all of this
Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz (1690-1764)
So does the introduction to Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz's halakhic commentary, Kreti uPleti:
- The Christian nations among whom we live, generally observe the principles of justice and righteousness, believe in the creation of the world and the existence and providence of G-d, and in the Law of Moses and the prophets, and oppose the Sadducean view that denies the resurrection of the dead and the immortality of the soul. Therefore it is fitting to be thankful to them, to praise and extol them, and to bring upon them blessings and not, G-d forbid, curses.
Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776)
Rabbi Yaakov Emden wrote:
- "We should consider Christians and Moslems as instruments for the fulfillment of the prophecy that the knowledge of G-d will one day spread throughout the earth. Whereas the nations before them worshipped idols, denied G-d's existence, and thus did not recognize G-d's power or retribution, the rise of Christianity and Islam served to spread among the nations, to the furthest ends of the earth, the knowledge that there is One G-d who rules the world, who rewards and punishes and reveals Himself to man. Indeed, Christian scholars have not only won acceptance among the nations for the revelation of the Written Torah but have also defended G-d's Oral Law. For when, in their hostility to the Torah, ruthless persons in their own midst sought to abrogate and uproot the Talmud, others from among them arose to defend it and to repulse the attempts."
In perhaps the most significant analysis of Christianity, Rabbi Emden says:
- The writers of the Gospels never meant to say that the Nazarene came to abolish Judaism, but only that he came to establish a new religion for the Gentiles from that time onward. Nor was it new, but actually ancient; they being the Seven commandments of the sons of Noah, which were forgotten. The Apostles of the Nazarene established them anew . . . It is therefore a habitual saying of mine . . . that the Nazarene brought about a double kindness in the world. On the one hand, he strengthened the Torah of Moses majestically, as mentioned earlier, and not one of our sages spoke out more emphatically concerning the immutability of the Torah. And on the other hand he did much good for the gentiles . . . by doing away with idolatry and removing the images from their midst. He obligated them with the seven commandments . . . and also bestowed on them ethical ways, and in this respect he was much more stringent with them than the Torah of Moses, as is well known.
Citing Acts 15, Emden argues that the founders of Christianity were not engaged in creating a new religion but rather bringing the Noahide covenant and its seven laws to the gentiles. That is why they did not require their followers to observe the Sabbath or the command of circumcision (which do not apply to non-Jews). Only later did Christians (mistakenly, Emden argues) see their faith as a rival to and replacement of Judaism. Emden urges Christians to go back to their own first principles. If they did so they would "bring their people to love the ancient Children of Israel who remain loyal to their G-d, as indeed commanded to Christians by their original teachers."
Rabbi Israel Lipschutz (1782-1860)
Rabbi Israel Lipschutz suggested that there are broad parameters of religious belief which lead to ethical conduct and are universal among civilized societies. He called such belief "torah" in an extended sense:
- R. Elazar ben Azaryah said, "If there is no Torah there is no culture [derekh eretz]" - The word "Torah" here cannot be meant literally, since there are many ignorant people who have not learned it, and many pious among the gentiles who do not keep the Torah and yet are ethical and people of culture. Rather, the correct interpretation seems to me to be that every people has its own religion [dat Eloki] which comprises three foundational principles, [a] belief in a revealed Torah, [b] belief in [Divine] reward and punishment, and [c] belief in an afterlife (they disagree merely on the interpretation of these principles). These three principles are what are called here "Torah".
Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes (1852-1937)
Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes said that:
- There is a midrash that, when Adam and Eve were turned out of Eden or earthy paradise, an angel smashed the gates, and the fragments flying all over the earth are the precious stones. We can carry the midrash further. The precious stones were picked up by the various religions and philosophers of the world. Each claimed and claims that its own fragment alone reflects the light of heaven, forgetting the setting and incrustations which time has added. Patience my brother. In G-d's own time we shall, all of us, fit our fragments together and reconstruct the gates of paradise. There will be an era of reconciliation of all living faiths and systems, the era of all being in at-one-ment, or atonement, with G-d. Through the gates shall all people pass to the foot of G-d's throne.
Rabbi Zevi Yehudah Kook (1891-1982)
Rabbi Zevi Yehudah Kook was a rabbi, leader of the Religious Zionist, Mizrachi movement in Israel, on the other hand resurrects many of the classic anti-Christian polemics with a vigor not seen for centuries. Among them: Christianity should be dismissed as an internal Jewish heresy; G-d the creator clearly cannot be a man; the Jewish G-d is alive whereas the Christian’s is dead. Christianity is the refuse of Israel, in line with the purported ancient Talmudic portrayals of Jesus as boiling in excrement.
Harvey Falk, who is a contemporary orthodox Jew, in his book Jesus the Pharisee proposes that the spread of the Noahide laws may have been an important part of Jesus' intentions, as well as those of his early followers (see also Council of Jerusalem).
Jerusalem Court for Bnei Noah (2007)
A recent ruling by the Jerusalem Court for Bnei Noah has ruled that it will not allow people from a Christian background to take the The Noahide Pledge if they believe that Jesus was Messiah. However they state that this is based on procedural and not halachic considerations. They state that another court may accept the Noahide pledge from such a person and it may be completely valid.
Christian Views of Noahides
The major Christian bodies (e.g. the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Protestant Churches) believe the Ten Commandments to be binding on them and would regard the Noahide laws as essentially a subset of these (though the requirement to set up courts, and the dietary regulation, are not explicit in the Ten Commandments). Some critics of the Noahide laws contend that insisting upon a basic set of moral laws is contrary to religious pluralism.
Some Christians believe that their existence implies that Jews may set up a legal system that would effectively outlaw Christianity. Based on the out-of-context claims that the "all Christians are idolators", and "punishment for idolatry is the death penalty", and that "the Rabbis have absolute control and authority over Noahides", some Christian groups has generated a lot of noise against the Noahide community.
The Jewish community responds by noting that:
- Noahide Law, with its minimal threshold of morality, law may be compared to Catholic social teachings, especially natural law theory.
- Judaism makes laws and customs for its own members (like all faiths) and does not set up governments to force Jewish beliefs on non-Jews; in contrast, some non-Jewish faiths have carried out such actions in practice.
- This is not the ruling according to the Code of Jewish law. If Christian were idolators - in the full sense - it would be forbidden to do business with them on the days before and after Sunday as well as any Christian holidays, as well as several other legal rulings would come into effect. This is not the case, however. Jewish Law holds that Christian is similar to idolatry, but not full idolatry, and may even be completely permitted for non-Jews.
- Jewish scholars also by note that Jews today no longer carry out the death penalty, even within the Jewish community. Jewish law, in contemporary practice, sees the death penalty as an indicator of the seriousness of an offense; violators are not actually put to death. Most Jewish authorities believe that penalties are a detail of the Noahide Laws and that Noahides themselves must determine the details of their own laws for themselves. According to this school of thought - see N. Rakover, Law and the Noahides (1998); M. Dallen, The Rainbow Covenant (2003)- the Noahide Laws offer mankind a set of absolute values and a framework for righteousness and justice, while the detailed laws that are currently on the books of the world's states and nations are presumptively valid.
- Lastly, the Rabbis have no control over Noahides, only the ability to interpret the Bible and give rulings in Jewish law. Even in theory, the Rabbis cannot enforce their decisions on non-Jews anywhere outside of the Land of Israel.
Several Christian congregations have abandoned traditional Christianity (rejecting the Nicene Creed) and adopted the First Covenant or Noahism in recent years.  In the United States a few organized movements of non-Jews (primarily of Christian origin) have either chosen to reject mainstream religious affiliation and live by the Apostolic Decree, which they view as the original Christian observance of Noahide Laws, or, under the influence of Orthodox Judaism, adhere to the Talmud's listing of the Laws (without converting to Judaism).
Some Christian writers , particularly those affiliated with Primitive Apostolic Christianity see the verses in Acts of the Apostles|Acts 15:19-21 as a directive from the first Council of Jerusalem to observe the basic understanding of the Noahide Laws in order to be considered Righteous Gentiles, and not be required to live completely as Jews. According to Acts 15, the Council of Jerusalem determined that circumcision was not required of new converts, only avoidance of "pollution of idols, fornication, things strangled, and blood". The basis for these prohibitions as found in Acts 15:21 states only: "For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day". The evidence of these Noachian inclusions to primitive Christian observance were in addition to the moral Ten Commandments given to Moses at Sinai, which covers the most essential requirements of the Noachian covenant. The additions of the four cited above were to complete the requirements of the new Gentile converts to primitive Christianity.
Jubilees, part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible, generally considered to be a 2nd century BCE Jewish apocrypha, Chapter 7, verses 20-33 states: "And in the twenty-eighth jubilee [1324-1372 A.M.] Noah began to enjoin upon his sons' sons the ordinances and commandments, and all the judgments that he knew, and he exhorted his sons to observe righteousness, and to cover the shame of their flesh, and to bless their Creator, and honour father and mother, and love their neighbour, and guard their souls from fornication and uncleanness and all iniquity. For owing to these three things came the flood upon the earth ... For whoso sheddeth man's blood, and whoso eateth the blood of any flesh, shall all be destroyed from the earth."
- Maimonides in the Laws of Kings 8:11
- Historical Analysis: The Talmud neither disparaged nor even mentions Jesus
- Mishneh Torah, Ma'achalos Asuros 11:7
- Commentary on Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 1.3
- Mishneh Torah, Avodah Kochavim 9:4
- Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and their Wars 11:4
- Moreh Nevuchim (1:50)
- Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim U'Milchamoteihem
- Tosafot to Avodah Zarah 2a
- Bekhorot 2b and Sanhedrin 63b
- Orah Hayyim 156:1
- Ant. 20:9, etc
- John 3:2, Acts 5:34, etc
- Mathew 26:65, Mark 14:64 and John 10:33
- 2 Corinthians 11:24.
- Meiri, Bet Habechirah, Avodah Zarah, 53. See also, ibid., 39, 46, 48, 59 and in many other places in his writings.
- Much has been written about Meiri's conceptual leap in relation to non-Jews: see Jacob Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, New York, Behrman House, 1961, 114-128; Ephraim Urbach, "Shitat Hasovlanut shel Rabbi Menahem Hameiri," in E. Etkes (ed), Perakim beToldot haHevrah haYehudit, Jerusalem, 1980, 34-44; M. Halbertal, Bein Torah leChokhmah, Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 2000, 80-108.
- R. Moses Rivkes (Lithuania, 17th century), Be'er haGolah to Choshen Mishpat 425:5).
- Introduction to Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschuetz, Kreti uPleti, s.v. ein.
- Commentary to Pirkey Avot, 4:13
- Rabbi Yaakov Emden, Seder Olam Rabbah ve-Zuta, Appendix. Translation, H. Falk, Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 19:1 [Winter 1982], 105-111).
- Tiferet Yisrael to Avot 3:17.
- Orthodox or Historical Judaism" (Chicago 1894), 217-8
- Zevi Yehudah Kook, Judaism and Christianity [Hebrew] (Beit El: 2001).
- KJV, Acts 15:20
- Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Judaic Views of Christianity and Islam (Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom)
- Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill, Judaism and Other Religions: An Orthodox perspective
- Jacob Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance, New York, Behrman House, 1961, 114-128
- Ephraim Urbach, "Shitat Hasovlanut shel Rabbi Menahem Hameiri," in E. Etkes (ed), Perakim beToldot haHevrah haYehudit, Jerusalem, 1980, 34-44
- M. Halbertal, Bein Torah leChokhmah, Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 2000, 80-108.
- Alon Goshen-Gottstein, "Jewish-Christian Relations: From Historical Past to Theological Future" Ecumenism No. 146 (2002).
- Elisheva Barre, Torah for Gentiles, 2008